“There has been a Massacre in San Juan Chamula” says witness
Removing the bodies from the plaza in San Juan Chamula
Protest, violence and death
- Around 20 reported killed by gunfire and machete; shotguns were used
- The mayor responded to the indigenous who were demanding support and then the shooting started
- The police arrived three hours later; people had already taken the bodies from the square
By Hermann Bellinghausen
San Juan Chamula, Chiapas
“It was a massacre,” says a young witness to the shooting that occurred here yesterday at 8 o’clock in the morning in the central plaza of this traditional and famous Tzotzil locality.
An act of demand from various communities, something common here, turned into a lethal shootout that cost the life of Mayor Domingo López González and the council member Narciso Lunes Hernández, as well as an undetermined number of dead and wounded, although those residents present agree that around 20 could be dead, the majority from bullets, but also from machetes.
It is difficult to know the precise number, but the testimonies agree that the first shots came from the city hall.
“People met in the communities from 6 in the morning, to come to demand the programmes that the municipio promised. Everyone came, men and women. No one knew what was going to happen,” adds the witness. “At 8 in the morning President Domingo (of the Green Ecologist Party of Mexico) came out on the balcony of the city hall.”
“After listening to the dissidents he asserted forcefully that he would deliver those resources later, and he asked the people to withdraw. Then he entered the building. The people did not disperse, and then rockets and ‘bombs’ (of gunpowder) came out from inside the building, and the first gunshots.” Various subjects, some masked, who arrived with the PRIístas, had taken up positions below the municipal palace. They were carrying rifles and started to shoot at the building. This group has previously appeared with their faces covered in their protests in Tuxtla Gutiérrez.
It was then that the mayor attempted to leave through the back, but the masked men went after him and they immediately shot him. “They came for that, they were prepared.
“He also had to have others in the streets above, because some came out running and others went behind shooting,” adds the young man, who requests anonymity, but speaks with total fluency and in good Castilla. Three other men surround us and just listen. The first shots came out of the municipal presidency, according to this version, confirmed later by two other indigenous men present in the plaza, who surrounded a man standing on his feet with a bullet wound, who with a hand on his abdomen observed the police arriving in the plaza after 11 o’clock in the morning, almost three and a half hours after the events.
“How long did the shots last? No more than 10 minutes. All the people started to run to the edge of the plaza. Women? Many came, but they stayed at the edge. Yes, some of them were wounded; I don’t know if there were any dead,” the witness explains to La Jornada. Apparently there were other shots afterwards.
The municipal building, painted completely green, is barely separated by a narrow passage from the municipal building of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI, its initials in Spanish). “With red hearts,” proclaims a big sign on its facade. On the side, the presidency shows numerous bullet impacts and broken windows. High-powered weapons were used, according to what a ministerial agent said later, when the police finally arrived. They found cartridges from a 45-caliber pistol, an AK-47 and an R-15. A hole in a curtain is identified which a police agent of mature age considered to be a shot from inside.
The photo shows the 2 municipal buildings, (one green, one red), as well as the plaza, now taken over by police.
A town in shock
The body of an older man lies over an abundant puddle of blood on the line of the small area of a soccer field traced at the western side of the plaza. His loneliness is absolute; no one is nearby. An elderly woman remains seated on the stairs at the side of the plaza, as if she is unrelated to everything, silent. Another body remains in sight on the street that goes to the market. According to the testimonies, the mayor and his councilman would have fallen (dead) behind the municipal presidency when they were attempting to flee. The number of individuals who died in the plaza is unknown, because their family members or companions removed them before 10 o’clock in the morning. According to two Chamulans from the municipal capital, two Nissan “Estaquitas” (trucks) entered the plaza after the confrontation, some indigenous men picked up the dead and injured, and then they went away.
After the shootout, the masked men who killed Domingo López and his collaborator carried the bodies to the front of the city hall, and with gestures and shouts pointed to them and called to the people that were approaching. At least one was re-killed there. “He was already dead, you can come now,” they said. “But the people had not come to fight. They were not informed,” the witness says. By then, the hundreds of indigenous who were protesting had fled and only residents of the municipal capital remained, unrelated to the tragedy, but too deeply affected to be classified as voyeurs. The town is in a state of shock, the streets deserted, except for small groups of men.
Delete that photo
“Delete that photo,” a state police agent with a helmet demands, pointing his tear gas rifle at this reporter when he sees him taking a picture of the man stretched out on the ground. A dozen police vehicles have just entered the plaza and the police jump out onto the ground clutching their weapons, extremely nervous. “Delete it,” he insists. Upon being questioned as to why, another agent farther away aims his rifle for a few seconds, and the first agent, maybe reconsidering, points to the scanty number of indigenous who observe from the periphery of the extensive central plaza: “If you don’t, the people will hit you.” “Then why do you aim at me?”
In fact, the only time that some indigenous attempted to question the reporters was when a state functionary headed to a group of his acquaintances and indicated: “remove the journalists;” the indigenous were limited to preventing us from approaching the presidency, the PRI and the market.
Vehicles from the municipal police of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the state police and investigative agents arrived sounding their sirens towards 11:30 in the morning and they cordoned off the front part of the plaza with anti-riot equipment and regulation weapons. The extreme nervousness of the agents and functionaries is the most alarming of all. They immediately proceed to collect cartridges and other evidence, and only later do they use latex gloves and bags. Rather than investigating, they are cleaning up the plaza.
From early on, the social networks were flooded with a lot of photographs of the dead functionaries. One of every two Chamulans must have a cell phone. “A lot of photographers were there,” relates the witness quoted above.
Nevertheless, the first press images are from the air and from when the patrols were already at the place. All the images that circulated in the networks and some media were from local residents and are late scenes.
Towards noon, a pick-up truck goes into the plaza. Two women are in the box. One, an older woman, cries inconsolably. Two men get out of the cabin, pick up the body and hastily throw it into the vehicle’s box, face down. So that the doors can close, they bend the knees up, only his feet and the soles of his huaraches are seen once they close the back door of the box. The second woman gets in to the cabin and the pick-up departs. Various police surround the scene without daring to intervene. The woman looks briefly at the feet of the body, turns the face and cries desperately. Nearby, a white truck picks up another body.
Soon, only police agents and patrol cars were in the proximity of the buildings of the PRI and of the municipal council. Not one business is open in the entire town. The people are sheltered in their homes. Some families remain on the flat roofs of the houses near the plaza.
At the border between San Cristóbal and Chamula, in the middle of the road a little sign warned in the morning:
“Don’t go to Chamula. There’s a problem.”
To say the least!
 San Juan Chamula is close to the tourist mecca of San Cristóbal. Chamula is the home of “traditional” religious practices, or at least that’s what they tell the tourists. Day trips for tourists to Chamula are very popular and the municipio (municipality, or county) makes a lot of money from these tourists trips. Chamula is also home to some of the thugs who attacked, evicted and destroyed the encampment and occupation of the “people’s movement” in San Cristóbal. In its Open Letter to the Governor of Chiapas, the EZLN warned the Governor of the danger of stirring up the rivalries in Chamula.
Questions About San Juan Chamula
La Jornada Editorial
If there is a place in the country where political engineering experiments are dangerous exercises, it’s in the municipality of Chamula, in the Highlands region of Chiapas. Because that, as a matter of fact, seems to be a component to consider in the events that took place yesterday in the municipal seat, where a confusing shooting ended with, as of last night, an undetermined number of victims, among them, the mayor and a local representative. In this context, what does political engineering mean? The expression refers to the deployment of a system whose purpose is to exploit (or possibly foster) the tensions and contradictions already present in a social group to gain political benefits foreign to the interests of that group.
It doesn’t take much to trigger an outbreak of violence in the Highlands region: the long series of clashes that have taken place there since the 1970s, where religious disputes, economic rivalries and bitter struggles for political power have woven a tight web, left that part of the country in a state of latent conflict and at risk of losing, at any time, its precarious social balance. As a result, the community life of the municipality’s indigenous population has been undergoing a gradual process of erosion that has damaged, in addition to mere coexistence, the dynamics of the habits and collective practices of that population. And as it usually happens, the winning fishermen in those troubled waters were the members of the political class that have been holding the main political posts in the region and state.
Yesterday’s events occurred after those on the 20th of this month when more than a hundred supposed residents of San Juan Chamula, carrying some improvised weapons and some not so improvised, atttacked a blockade that members of the National Coordinating Committee of Education Workers maintained on the highway between Tuxtla Gutierrez and San Cristobal de las Casas. In the attack, which left several injured-at least one teacher with a firearm, they had the coverage (or in other words, protection) of members of the state police. After the violent eruption, it was said that the protagonists were farmers, merchants and craftsmen whose livelihoods were affected by the blockade. However, the group of indigenous people who carried out the action showed that to be untrue, as they were armed and maintained a hostile attitude towards the teachers. Officially, it was said there were some detainees, but no authority has taken the time to speak more about the subject.
And then, almost without interruption, one of the usual community protests ends in a bloody shooting, in which, in addition to handguns, R-15 and AK-47 rifles were used. It is difficult to venture a hypothesis to acceptably explain the sudden upsurge of violence in Chamula, although it’s not insignificant that it occurs as the actions of the teacher’s conflict reach Chiapas.
In any case, if the two acts of violence are linked and are due to the unfortunate calculations of a sector interested in ending the CNTE protests, it is expected that sanity will prevail over impatience, irritation and the temptation to push solutions based on force for problems that require, above all, a willingness to negotiate. Finally, we should remember that, from another angle, the Zapatista National Liberation Army had warned a few days before about the risks involved in irresponsibly taking advantage of the struggle between the government and the CNTE to rekindle any hostilities against its members.
Translated by Ruby Izar-Shea – Dorsett Chiapas Solidarity